Dishing up the facts about Pet Food - Just what do those labels mean?
This article taken from The Animal Wellness Magazine, vol.3, issue 3

We love our cats and dogs. They’ve worked their way into our hearts and we consider them part of our family. Feeling this way, says Jean Hofve, DVM, creates a moral obligation to feed them appropriately.

A companion animal should receive a wholesome and healthful diet.  This is the responsibility that all pet caregivers should willingly accept and regard as a moral duty, since our animals have no choice but to eat whatever we give them.

Up until recently, most of us believed we were fulfilling this duty. We watched the television ads and chose a food that said it provided a balanced diet, tasted great and would maintain our animals for the rest of their lives. Now we know that many of these brands create long-term health problems because of suspicious ingredients and nonexistent or improper ratios of vitamins and minerals.

Fortunately, the pet food industry is changing.  Motivated by informed consumers who understand the relationship between good nutrition and good health, more and more companies are responding to the demand for higher quality foods. They are creating a new generation of ‘premium” pet foods that allow people to feed their animal companions a better diet without compromising the convenience factor.  But as foods claiming to be natural hit the shelves, it’s more important than ever to understand what you’re dishing up, particularly since the industry is still largely unregulated.

The legal standards

In the U.S., the Association of American Feed Control Offices (AAFCO) sets the nutritional standards, including required minimums of protein, fat, fiber, amino acids, vitamins and minerals.  The Center for Veterinary medicine (part of the Food and Drug Administration) monitors health claims made on pet food labels and works with AAFCO on a variety of issues regarding livestock feed and pet food.  According to Dr. Hofve, about half the states have adopted various versions of the AAFCO standards, and the feed control officials of most states do at least some testing of pet foods. Surprisingly, California does no testing at all, so when food fails internal quality controls, the manufacturers can send it to California or to another state that doesn’t test, knowing they are unlikely to be caught.

In Canada, regulation is even less formal. The law requires pet food labels to list only three things: either dog or cat food, the weight and the name of the manufacturer. Two voluntary organizations, the Canadian Veterinary Medical Association and the Pet Food Association of Canada, for the most part, “rely on the integrity of the companies they certify to assure that product ingredients do not fall below minimum standards,” says Ann Martin, author of Food pets Die For. U.S. – based multinationals manufacture 85-90per cent of the pet food sold in Canada, and under the free trade agreement, neither of these Canadian organizations possesses any control over ingredients in U.S. pet food.

AAFCO’s rules for pet food

  •  Interpreting your pet food label starts with understanding the rules that AAFCO has developed: 95% rule   If the pet food label reads “Beef for Dogs” or “Chicken Cat Food,” the standards stipulate that 95% of the product must be made up of this ingredient (beef or chicken). If water content is a consideration (as in a canned food), then the figure drops to 705.
  • 25% rule: When a product is described as “dinner,” “entrée,” “nuggets,” “formula” or “platter,” at least 25% but less than 95% of the product must contain the listed ingredient. For instance, Beef Dinner for Dogs may or may not contain beef as the main ingredient.
  • 3% or “with” rule: If a product contains at least 3% of the named ingredient, it may be labeled Cat Food with Salmon.
  • Flavor rule: Products that claim “Lamb Flavor Dog Food” need only contain a sufficiently detectable amount” of the indicated species. They may not be made up of this meat at all, but probably get the flavor from meals, by-products or “digests’ of various parts.
  • Definition for “natural” food: in 1997, after years of manufacturers abusing the word “natural,” AAFCO finally determined that a “natural” pet food cannot contain any synthesized ingredients, other than vitamins, minerals and trace nutrients.  If these are added, it must be stated prominently on the label.
Pet food sources

Not only do we have to watch the rules, we need to know the sources of the ingredients. Here are some of the things you should know when you read your pet food label.

Meat and meat by-products originate from “freshly slaughtered” animals, those that supposedly walked into the slaughterhouse by their own means. Meat by-products include various animal organs, glands, and other parts not saleable for human consumption. If proximity permits, by-products are fresh-shipped to manufacturers; otherwise they’re frozen. The inspector of the facility decides which parts to pass for animal consumption, including animal feed, and which to condemn for all edible uses.

Manufacturers make meat meal, meat by-product meal, meat and bone meal, and poultry by-product meal through a process called rendering, which removes most of the moisture and fat. Because they are more concentrated, these “meals’ contain more protein than dried whole meat. It is the source of this rendered generic meal that we need to be wary of, however.

According to the World health organization’s guidelines, “materials that usually are treated” by rendering include: animals that died on the farm,  placentas, animals killed in campaigns to eradicate epizootic diseases, inedible offal from slaughterhouses and poultry processing plants, condemned carcasses or parts of condemned carcasses, trimmings, floor sweepings, sieve remainings produced in slaughterhouses and meat industries, sludge from slaughterhouse waste water treatment plants, condemned fish and fish offal, leftover food from restaurants and food industries, cadavers of pets, strays, sport and laboratory animals, bodies of animals slaughtered for partial use 9fur animals, sharks, frog, crocodiles) and remains of animal materials sent for examination to veterinary institutes and food laboratories.

Rendered meat and meat by-product meals may also include meat from the 4-Ds: animals that re diseased, disabled, dying or dead before they arrive at the slaughterhouse. Recalled meat as well as unsold, outdated meat still in its packaging, routinely gets rendered, along with animal remains from animal shelters, pounds and veterinary hospitals. 

Although manufacturers deny this last point, Dr. Hofve states: “Every feed control official and manufacturer I talked to said they believe this is occurring, but, rarely and at a low rate.’ That it may be occurring at all raises another problem. “Incorporation euthanized animals in pet food creates potential problems. Most shelters use sodium pentobarbital as the euthanasia agent; this is known to survive processing intact. Also, many animals die or are euthanized because of diseases such as parvovirus, feline leukemia, kidney failure or cancer. Little is known about whether disease-causing organism or systemic toxins are destroyed in the rendering process. The agent that causes mad cow disease is not destroyed even by high temperature rendering.”

About 35% of rendered products make their way into pet food. The rendering process also produces cosmetics and manufacturing and agricultural (animal feed and fertilizer) products.

Pet Foods Should Contain:
  • Superior sources of protein, Whole, fresh meats, such as chicken, lamb and turkey, or single-source animal meals (chicken meal instead of poultry meal) are the best choices.
  • Whole-meat source as the first ingredient on the label, Carbohydrates in the form of grains should be farther down the list of ingredients.
  • Unsaturated vegetable fats, Choose products with sunflower, corn or seame oils rather than saturated animal fats.
  • Whole, unprocessed grains and vegetables, Avoid white flour, rice husks, soybean hulls, brewer’s rice and corn gluten.
  • Natural preservatives, Vitamins C and E and rosemary are recommended over BHA, BHT and ethoxyquin. (Note: The canned, wet foods do not require preservatives.)
  • Chelated minerals, These organic minerals are absorbed more easily and completely than inorganic minerals.
  • Additional nutrients, These would include herbs, fruits, probiotics and enzymes.
Love of Animals, February 2000
“WDJ’s Top 10 Dry Dog Foods” in the Whole Dog Jouurnal, February 2000

Beware of preservatives

In recent years, many stories have focused on preservatives used in pet foods, namely BHA, BHT and ethoxyquin, which manufacturers use primarily in dry and semi-moist foods. (Canning automatically preserves food).

Made from petroleum derivatives, BHA and BHT may cause liver enlargement and reduced DNA synthesis. They may cause allergies and may have carcinogenic properties.

Ethoxyquin, originally used as a herbicide and rubber hardener, has allegedly caused many problems in dogs, including skin and coat problems, thyroid, pancreas and immune disorders, reproductive difficulties, birth defects, kidney damage, behavioral disorders and several types of cancer. In 1997, the FDA asked the manufacturers to voluntarily reduced the amount of ethoxyquin in pet foods. In addition, ethoxyquin is now required to be disclosed if it is used in any of the ingredients as well as in the final product.

Fortunately, Vitamins C and E have replaced ethoxyquin in many pet foods. These vitamins contain beneficial anti=oxidants and preservative properties. While these vitamins do not preserve food for as long as the chemical preservatives, they are much more animal-friendly.

The importance of vitamins and minerals

The ensure animal companions receive the vitamins and minerals necessary for life, AAFCO established tables listing every nutrient and the level at which it must be present in the food. You may recall several years ago when cats were dying from heart failure or becoming blind because of the low taurine levels in commercial cat foods. Unfortunately, many of these listings stipulate only minimums, not maximums or optimums.

Dr. Hofve explains the importance of maintaining a proper balance. “One study, conducted by the University of California, Davis veterinary school, tested “at least three feline diets that had met the AAFCO allowances by analysis and found them lacking. They concluded that the animals were suffering from a copper deficiency, due to the incorporation of copper oxide – a biologically unavailable copper source – in the new food.

U.C. Davis also conducted generational studies, where animals were kept on the same food for three to five generations.” They found that ‘some foods that pass the feeding trials still won’t support animals over the long term.”  Dr. Hofve goes on to say that the studies “of 100 foods that pass AAFCO analysis criteria, 10 to 20 would not pass the feeding trials, and of those, 10% would not be adequate for long-term feeding.

What are our options?

Armed with all this knowledge about pet food, how do we make the best selection for our beloved animal companions?

Undoubtedly, the best choice is to feed a home-prepared diet, based either on raw or cooked meat. Studies show that fresh, unprocessed poultry and beef by-products are better digested than rendered by-products. However, our modern meat supply sometimes tainted with bacteria and chemicals, may pose a threat to our animals. Most authors suggest choosing a reliable, organic meat source, if possible, and refraining from feeding a raw diet if the animal is immuno-compromised or chronically ill.

Home-prepared food does require careful formulation to ensure your animal receives the adequate ratio of vitamins, minerals, essential fatty acids and enzymes. To take the guessing work out of supplementation, Dr. Hofve suggest “another possibility is using raw meat with complete supplements such as (oatmeal-based) Sojourner’s Farms or Celestial Pets.”

With today’s busy schedules, however, home-prepared diets may prove too challenging, especially seven days a week. This brings us back to the new generation of premium pet foods, which are changing the face of this multibillion-dollar industry. Ingredients such as sweet potatoes, apples, berries, flaxseed oil, whole brown rice (instead of the husks and other sweepings from mill room floors as in many commercial brands) are a vast departure from the foods we used to consider “premium.”

Even with the premium brands, Dr. Hofve suggest switching flavors and brands from time to time to ensure your animal isn’t getting too much of one nutrient and too little of another. Dr. randy Wysong, veterinarian, nutritionist and pet food manufacturer, agrees.

‘How many parents would take the advice of a pediatrician who placed a packaged food product on the exam table and told the parents that this is the only product they should feed the child, day-in-day-out, for the child’s lifetime, and further, that they should be sure to not feed any other foods because that might unbalance the product.

They are what they eat

Many consumers, motivated by high priced advertising, low prices and lack of knowledge will continue to buy the low-quality foods produced by the huge multinational conglomerates. However if we recall the two old adages, ‘you are what you eat” and “ you get what you pay for,” perhaps more and more of us will opt for healthier choice for our companions.

Ann Martin, “the Truth about Cats and Dogs” in Nexus Magazine, 4:1, Dec. 1996-Jan. 1997
Dr. Jean Hofve, DVM, “A Holistic Look at Commercial Pet Food” at the Proceedings of the 2000 Annual Conference of the American Holistic Veterinary Medical Association, 09/2000
Edmund Dorosz, BSc, DVM, “Which Pet Food Do We Buy”,

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